Apr 11 2011 6:00pm

Dark and Dangerous: The Lure of Gothic Romances

The first Gothic romance I encountered was by Mary Stewart, and what an introduction! I was a suburban high-schooler, and had never even come close to a dark, broody man, let alone one with an exotic name like Raoul. How could I resist?

In Nine Coaches Waiting, the heroine, Linda, an English governess, put up even less resistance than I did.  Her first encounter with Raoul was when he nearly ran her over with his car while she strolled near her employer's chateau. Raoul atones for his carelessness by taking Linda out the next night for dinner and dancing, drinks and gambling.  Several hours later, she's a total goner:

It wasn't the brandy; the coffee had drowned that effectively enough. It was a much more deadly draught. There was one thing that stood like stone among the music and moonfroth of the evening's gaieties. It was stupid, it was terrifying, it was wonderful, but it had happened and I could do nothing about it.

For better or worse, I was head over ears in love with Raoul de Valmy.

One date! They hadn't even kissed yet! Still, her instantaneous crush did not seem out of place to an impressionable teenage reader (ahem!). The heroine makes this immediate freefall seem plausible when she adds:

It was to have been expected. It would be a very odd Cinderella indeed who could be thrown out of such dreary seclusion as the orphanage had offered me, into contact with Raoul de Valmy, without something of the sort happening. A man whose looks and charm were practically guaranteed to get him home without his even trying, had exerted himself to give a very lonely young woman a pleasant evening. An evening to remember.

Gothic romances are the grown-up version of Francis Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. Often the heroine is an orphan, uprooted from her home to live in a dark, forbidding place, an existence filled with melancholy.

A delicious sense of menace pervades the story, because every character has a secret, casting each action in a sinister light. The heroine's life is constantly in danger, yet she's a plucky one, doggedly trying to determine who caused a stone balustrade to crumble at the wrong time, or who shot a gun that narrowly missed her young charge.

The more she attempts to solve the deadly mystery, the more we fret. We live in dread fear that the dangerous man the heroine is falling in love with will turn out to be the one chopping up bodies and burying them in the arbor behind the Gothic castle. Yet he remains utterly irresistible.

As Catherine, the heroine in Victoria Holt's Kirkland Revels, explains:

There was a lot I could not understand about him, but that air of mystery about him enthralled me.  There were times when he talked freely about himself, but even at such times I had the impression he was holding back something, some dark secret perhaps, or something he did not entirely understand himself.

So, to recap, we've got dangerous, enigmatic heroes. Lonely, melancholy heroines. Menacing atmosphere and exotic locales.  It's a perfect storm for burgeoning teenage angst. No wonder I devoured every single gothic romance I could get my hands on.

But on reread, the things I used to adore no longer have the same appeal.

The description in gothic romances is lengthy, extensive, and—okay, I'll admit it—burdensome.  As a teen, I loved being immersed in the details of places like Greece or Cornwall, since I wasn't likely to visit anytime soon. But now my eyes get blurry wading through yet another page detailing every flower the heroine sees on her way to lunch.

All the wordiness makes me want to skip ahead (even at the risk of missing important clues), because I'm in a hurry to get to the good parts. Which brings me to my next complaint: there isn't enough “development time” between the hero and heroine. For the bulk of the story he's scary and menacing and the heroine doesn't know if she can trust him. . .and then with three pages left they're in love. The bad guy is vanquished. The End.

It leaves me feeling shortchanged, as though I'm reading a synopsis of a romantic relationship.  I need to experience the romance as it develops over the course of the spine-tingling events. I want to feel how their love is growing while they're in the midst of these beautifully-described locations.

Otherwise, the happily-ever-after is just a reward for the heroine correctly discovering the hero was not the villain after all.

Still, I do hold a fond place in my heart for Gothic romances, since they were a stepping stone to a lifetime of romance reading adventures. I just can't help imagining the scrumptious results if somebody did a reboot of these classics, updating them for modern readers' needs.  

Let's hope they start with a dark, broody hero named Raoul. 


Donna Cummings writes lighthearted contemporary and historical romance. She can be found at, or talking incessantly about coffee on Twitter @BookEmDonna. 

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Anita Clenney
1. Anita Clenney
I loved Victoria Holt. My mom used to read her books and got me started. I haven't read one in a long time, and I suspect I'd feel the same as you, because I will start skimming if there is a lot of discription. The one wordy author I love is Diana Gabaldon. Her books are long, but she just captivates me.
Donna Cummings
2. Donna Cummings
@Anita -- It's amazing how impatient I am now as a reader. I guess because there's such a reduced amount of time to read (unlike as a teenager when I could read THE WHOLE SUMMER! LOL) It also makes me a little nervous about re-reading some books that I remember fondly. Maybe they should just stay in the memory banks. :)
Anita Clenney
3. ClarissaSouthwick
"If somebody did a reboot"??? Donna, I think you're that author. Go for it. I do have a vague memory of loving to read Victoria Holt when I was very young, but I haven't read anything like that lately. Great post. :)
Donna Cummings
4. Donna Cummings
@Clarissa -- Ack! I don't think gothics have humor in them. LOL But now you've got me thinking. . .

I think I read all the Victoria Holt books when I was younger, but the mists of time are obscuring some of the details now. :)
Anita Clenney
5. Marilyn S
Donna, it does sound like you might revive that genre--with a modern twist.

Anita Clenney
6. Anna C. Bowling
Absolutely give your own dark, brooding Raoul a try. I also have fond memories of gobbling gothic romances all summer long, that delicious experience of love casting a sliver of light into the dark and mysterious world of the hero. Works for me.
Anita Clenney
7. Amelia James
I read a few Gothic romances when I was in high school. Darkness still appeals to me, but it's the darkness in the character rather than the setting that's most interesting.

I'd love to write a re-booted Gothic romance. Will put that on my to do list.
Donna Cummings
8. Donna Cummings
@Marilyn -- It's such a dark day today--perfect weather for a Gothic setting. We'll see if my brain comes up with anything!

@Anna -- I love your description! That is definitely what appealed to me, that dark and mysterious world of the hero that didn't have any resemblance to my life.

@Amelia -- I can't wait to see how your re-boot turns out! I agree about the darkness in the character having the strongest lure, and there are more things nowadays that explore that than they did previously.

Oh boy. You are all making me sorely tempted to try a "Raoul 2.0". LOL
Anita Clenney
9. Janet W
What was it Myretta said ... echoing Jane Austen's words ... about Emma? These may be two gothics only a me could love, but they say you never quite forget your first(s).

Bride of Emersham by Leslie Lance: it has it all, a woman who looks like her missing relative agreeing to a MOC so she can get into the bleak castle ... the taciturn hero (from Canada, and isn't that different?). An earldom up for grabs. Really every cliche/trope out there and I still re-read it once a year. It feels fresh to me.

House of Scorpio by Pat Wallace: this was written at the height of horoscope madness -- are you an Earth, a Fire, a whatever ... oh, and I digress but Wills and Kate are phenomenally well-matched because he's a Cancer (Water) and she's a Capricorn (Earth) and everyone knows those two signs are compatible. So here's the deal, two non-compatible signs marry and have the daughters of Scorpio. Throughout this big book, the sisters find each other and their astrologically compatible mates. One thing I loved, the head heroine, as it were, was a Cancer, like me, and I loved her jewelry. Wallace describes environments, jewels, dresses, even food, that is designed for your sign (Air, Fire, Earth, Water). Fascinating and goes for big bucks on Amazon so I can't be the only one :)

Mary Stewart, some Victoria Holt and a lot of Helen MacInnes: those were the "pulp" books I read. Throw in some Rumer Godden and Eliz Goudge. Great post ... thanks!!
Anita Clenney
10. Tracy Brogan
I used to devour Victoria Holt books! Now i want to add all those classics to my teetering TBR pile.
Anita Clenney
11. kari lee townsend
OMG Donna, I hear that. I am so impatient now as a reader. I used to just read for fun and because I loved it. I can't remember the last time I read just because.... I always seem to read for a purpose now and I analyze everything. Sometimes it makes me feel sad. It's rare I can just get lost in a book these days.
Donna Cummings
12. Donna Cummings
@Janet -- Ooh, I've got to find House of Scorpio. I'm a Scorpio, and I love to read about fellow scorpions. This sounds great. I think I remember a Helen MacInnes, and of course there was Jane Aiken Hodge, and Phyllis Whitney.

@Tracy -- That's my favorite part of these posts. I learn about so many more books I need to read. Of course, I need to build an addition on to my house. LOL Not to mention adding on to the 24 hours in the day.

@kari lee -- I know what you mean about analyzing everything. It sure does slow me down, and I don't have time to slow down! I do get swept away by books, but not as often unfortunately. Sigh.
Anita Clenney
13. Leanna Renee Hieber
It's these very sentiments that drove me to write my Strangely Beautiful series!(and my upcoming Gothic series as well) - Never ready or able to let the intense, dramatic style of Gothics go, I knew it would define me as a reader and as a writer! Cheers!
Donna Cummings
14. Donna Cummings
@Leanna -- I've heard great things about your books, and I have to add them to my To Buy list. It sounds like now I'll get to read the Gothic I've been needing for so long!
Anita Clenney
15. Heather Snow

I so agree that the wordiness and somewhat melodramatic angst of these old Gothics (as much as I loved them when I was younger) drags the story down now. But I do still love the elements of a good Gothic.

You might check out Katy Madison's Tainted By came out this year from Avon and is a modern take on the old Gothics. Sinister house on the cliffs of Cornwall, destitute and desperate heroine, dark hero accused of killing his wife...all the good stuff we love, but written at today's pace and deep point of view that keeps you glued to the page.

I do hope more authors bring back/modernize this genre, because it's a great one :)
Donna Cummings
16. Donna Cummings
@Heather -- *scribbles down details* That sounds perfect! Thanks for the info. I think the modernization is just what this genre needs, because I like all the elements--I just need a quicker pace and I'm good to go. :)
Anita Clenney
17. Tracy Grant
What a wonderful post! I grew up on these books. A family friend gave me Mary Stewart's "This Rough Magic" for Christmas when I was ten. I thought it was a very grown up present and that the romance was a bit racy in cool way (which is very funny to think now). That book remains a favorite, along with "Nine Coaches Waiting" (love the last scene between Raoul and Linda), "Airs Above the Ground", and "The Gabriel Hounds". In addition to creating great characters, Stewart is brilliant at bringing the setting to life.
Donna Cummings
18. Donna Cummings
@Tracy -- Yes, I thought I was so adult and it did feel a bit racy compared to the teen-type books I had been reading. LOL I remember watching "The Moonspinners" on TV and then having to get the book. And every Christmas that I got more of these books was always the best Christmas ever. LOL
Louise Partain
19. Louise321
Recently, my mother expressed a longing to read old fashioned romances, so to the internet I went and purchased all of Mary Stewart's romances as well as the Helen McInnes suspense books (very dated but some still very readable) and she just finished the whole huge stack. Of course I re-read them as well. I remember when I was a kid thinking they were such a step up from Beverly of Grostark and the books of Emile Loring that my own grandmother favored. I wonder in 30 years whether the books I consider romantic will be considered staid.
Anita Clenney
20. Janet W
@Louise321 I'm crazy for Helen MacInnes and some of her books really hold up. I'm thinking of Neither Five Nor Three ... it would make a great match-up with Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers. She also wrote an achingly romantic book, Friends and Lovers that I'm sure is her thinly disguised biography. MacInnes's books with nihilistic villains hold up better than her Red Menace ones, altho that's not a reason not to read them. A Venetian Affair: great book, very atmospheric. I just bought a DVD of The Moonspinners: love forward to watching it with my daughter.
21. EvangelineHolland
I still love gothics and count them as comfort reads. When life gets me down, or I'm stressing about my writing, I pick up one of Victoria Holt's numerous titles, or Madeline Brent, or Nancy Buckingham, and I sink into the refreshing familiarity of intelligent heroines, witty banter, moody heroes, and suspenseful settings.
Donna Cummings
22. Donna Cummings
@Louise -- That's a good question about the books you're reading today and how they'll be perceived in 30 years' time. Who knows? Maybe things will swing back around again. :)

@Janet -- I may have to get that Moonspinners DVD too!

@Evangeline -- I haven't heard of Nancy Buckingham, but thanks for the reminder of Madeline Brent. There really were so many authors in that genre, and for all the reasons you listed. :)
Anita Clenney
23. Isadora
Gothic Mystery/Romance has always been my favorite genre. I blazed through Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, Barbara Michaels and so many that I cannot remember the names. I am so glad you wrote this column because it has jogged my memory of some of the authors names so I can get them. I am Visually Impaired now and get digital books from the Library for the Blind and have found many of the titles on there. I have so enjoyed getting back in touch with those wonderful books. I write and have just published my first novel but cannot seem to get the words out for this genre, as much as I would love to do. For those also loojking to read even more gothic tales, don't forget Daphne du Maurier and Dorothy Eden! Any others that you guys remember?Please post the authors so that we can look for them!
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